'It's a hard story to tell': Jonathan Safran Foer on how Greta Thunberg, the Impossible Burger, and meatless breakfasts are altering the climate-change narrative for the better
Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images
Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images
- Jonathan Safran Foer's new nonfiction book, "We Are the Weather," is tackling climate change, starting with breakfast and lunch.
- In a phone interview with Business Insider, Foer discussed daily habits, collective action, and the turning point in the fight against climate change.
- Foer's book has come out at a time when vegetarianism has been gaining traction as a way to curb climate change - Tuesday also marks World Vegetarian Day, an annual event to kick off Vegetarian Awareness Month.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Jonathan Safran Foer is a cataloger of catastrophe.
In his first novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," a fictionalized version of the author tracks his family history to a Jewish Ukrainian shtetl destroyed by Nazis. In his next novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," a boy comes to terms with the death of his father during 9/11. Now, Foer is taking on a more eminent existential crisis: climate change.
The subheading for Foer's new nonfiction book, "We Are the Weather," is "Saving the planet begins at breakfast." For his own part, Foer is skipping all animal products for breakfast and lunch, and he suggests everyone do the same.
For the month of October, many others are planning to cut out meat. Tuesday marks World Vegetarian Day, an annual event to kick off Vegetarian Awareness Month, which ends with World Vegan Day on November 1.
Foer had his own long history with on-again off-again vegetarianism, which prompted him to write his 2009 book "Eating Animals," a look into what goes on in factory farming and what meat means in Foer's own family. But this time around, Foer isn't looking into vegetarianism in terms of animal rights, farmers' rights, or health: He's looking at how it affects climate change.
Foer's book comes out at a time when both vegetarianism and climate change are being hotly debated. Meat-alternative companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have become massively popular among, even among avowed carnivores.
And last month, the Global Climate Strike drew an estimated 6 million to protest inaction against climate change. Its biggest activist, Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg (herself a vegan), chastised world leaders during the UN Climate Action summit. Foer is all for these trends, but says they're still not effective enough to prevent climate change from causing irreversible harm.
Foer spoke with Business Insider over the phone about daily habits, collective action, and the turning point in the fight against climate change.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
De Luce: Why did you call your book "We Are the Weather?"
Foer: Because I was thinking about collective change, trying to close the conceptual distance between ourselves, both the problems of climate change and the solutions to climate change, and to create a reminder that what we do will determine the fate of the planet - and we have to do it together.
De Luce: How is "We Are the Weather" different from your 2009 book "Eating Animals"?
Foer: With "Eating Animals," I wanted to write a book about eating animals, about industrial farming and more broadly - although there's hardly anything more broad than that, given 90% of the animals you eat come from industrial farms - with the question of eating meat, which is something I've wrestled with since I was a kid.
With this book, I had no intention of writing about that subject at all. I just wanted to write about climate change, what we as individuals can do. Like most people, I accepted the science. There are very, very few Americans who don't accept the science anymore, about 9%. I accept the science, and I cared about the implications of the science. That's not a liberal value, it's not an urban value, it's just an American (and I would say, fundamentally human) value. Most people in this country, like the overwhelming majority, care and want to do something. And we have different ideas about what it is that we should do or the government should do.
I had all the knowledge that was necessary and I had all the concern that was necessary, and I wasn't doing much of anything at all. And worse, my carbon footprint is probably significantly larger than that of the average science denier. But I felt self-satisfaction in our virtuousness in just knowing. Knowing that it was happening, or saying the right things at dinner parties, or making the right posters for marches. And it just became intolerable at some point. So I decided to figure out what I was capable of, in the sense of what I could do that mattered in the world, but also what I was capable of, in the sense of what my own limits are. Because there's a lot of things I could do that would be great, that if I'm being honest I know I'm not going to do.
De Luce: Why is there such a gulf between caring about the planet and doing something to save it?
Foer: We've had so much emphasis on feeling, sometimes at the expense of doing. It's necessary as much as possible to keep bringing the focus back to what effect we're having, whether it's through our individual choices or through advocating for systemic change.
De Luce: In your book, you compare climate change to the Second World War, saying that both are conflicts happening "over there," not here.
Foer: I think for most people, and again I think this has nothing to do with your political alignment, it feels vague and distant, "over there" both in the sense of geographic distance, but also "over there" chronologically, like it's going to be in the future that it happens. It's very, very hard to feel its full presence now, in our lives, both the effects of climate change, but also the solutions to climate change, feel "over there" to us. With the fossil fuels industry, or China, or India and Brazil, as if it weren't happening to us now, and as if there were nothing we could do about it.
De Luce: Did anything specific prompt you to write your newest book? Amazon
Foer: When kids in the other room are horsing around, you can sort of, you know, ignore it and keep doing what you're doing, paying bills or opening mail, whatever it is - then one of them hits the other, and then, OK, I can still ignore it. Then something breaks, let's say, then you just say, "Enough. Enough. I have to go deal with this." So I had that, except that I was both the adult and the kid. I had enough of hearing myself say, "Hey, somebody's gotta do something" while not doing something.
De Luce: You talk about how you skip animal products for breakfast and lunch. How did you decide that was the best way to reduce your meat consumption?
Foer: That's just based in the most contemporary science, which tells us that while people who live in malnourished parts of the world could afford to eat a little bit more meat and dairy, people who live in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe have to reduce their meat consumption by 90%, and their dairy by 60%. That's a hard thing to keep track of. I don't want to have a calculator with me while I'm eating, and I don't want to keep a diary of all my meals, so I was just trying to think for myself of one strategy to approach the science, in necessary numbers. That seemed like a good strategy for me.
I met someone the other day who said, "Me and my son have this huge breakfast every morning with eggs and bacon, and I don't know how I'm going to do what you're suggesting." And I said, "Well, don't do what I'm suggesting. If that's the meal that really matters, do that, and maybe you could find ways for lunch and dinner to do quite a bit less." I think most people don't want to think of themselves as science deniers. So we know what the science is. In terms of the best way to engage with it, that can be a very personal decision. I think for most people, dinner tends to be the meal that's far and away the most important, both in terms of culinary pleasure, but also in terms of cultural functions and social functions.
I think there are ways to actually make eating even better. But it would be dishonest to pretend that it wouldn't require effort and relearning, and, at least in the beginning, devoting more time and planning into eating than we're used to.
De Luce: What do you think of plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger?
Foer: I think they're great, and serve a very, very important function. One in three Americans eats meat every single day at a fast food restaurant, and that would be a very, very easy way to eat less meat. I get that we can't replace a steak right now, I get it that we can't replace a lot of culturally significant meat foods, but a Whopper? And Impossible Whopper is every bit as good as a Whopper, and it requires 99% less water, 93% less land, and it produces 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. It would just be a wonderful place to start, and I think that these companies are new. And they're really quite good. Within a couple years, it's not only that they will be as good as animal meat, they will be better. They'll just taste better.
I had one of those [meat alternatives], and someone asked me, "Was it good?" I mean, it tasted what it was supposed to taste like. We'd live on a much better planet if we just moved away from fast food completely.
De Luce: You write about how saving the planet is like being part of a wave at a baseball game, that little deeds add up to big actions. Why is that so important?
Foer: I was just thinking about how collective action works, and the role we can play as individuals in solving these global problems. Individuals themselves cannot solve climate change. We absolutely need to have systemic change and legislative change. That kind of change just isn't coming. It's not coming. Look at our leaders. I don't even just mean [President Donald] Trump. We are not going to have the kind of aggressive legislation that we need unless something else changes.
Marches are not doing it - as good as marches are, and I attend the marches, and my kids attend the marches, and everybody should attend the marches - but I think we ought to start withholding our money from the most destructive industries, and showing the force of our habits, our daily decisions.
I've met so many farmers who say, "I don't grow what I want to grow, I grow what people want to eat, what they buy." Ninety-one percent of the Amazonian deforestation is because of animal agriculture. If we eat less beef there will be less deforestation in the Amazon. If we had a boycott of beef, we could protect the Amazon.
But most importantly, as we change our habits, we push corporations to have some practices that will make it easier for us to make good decisions. There would be a virtuous cycle in that way, a reinforcing cycle.
The Beyond Burger at McDonald's and Burger King is a perfect example. Corporations didn't decide they wanted to play a part in solving climate change. People said, "Hey, we wanna play a part. We wanna eat something different." Ninety percent of people who buy Beyond Burgers in supermarkets are meat eaters. It's not just vegetarians. People who recognize that we need to eat less meat. So as we ask for it, corporations make more of it, which makes it easier for us to make environmentally conscious decisions, which makes it easier for corporations and governments to practice a kind of environmental consciousness.
De Luce: You discuss how the Second World War, among many conflicts, captivate us because they make great stories, but not climate change. Why doesn't climate change make for a good story?
Foer: It's a hard story to tell, because it's so complicated. It has so many different pieces and components, and the non-scientists, the lay person, could explain what Amazonian deforestation has to do with deforestation, has to do with the melting ice sheets, has to do with the wildfires in California, has to do with Syria, but it's not easy.
It's not a clean story. There's no iconic villains, there's no iconic heroes, and it feels far away, maybe most importantly. We need to strive to find new ways to talk about it, and also maybe not wait for some story that's going to move us to tears but instead create norms that help us do the right thing, even when we're not feeling it.
De Luce: How do you feel about Greta Thunberg's activism? She seems to be the closest thing to a face the climate change movement has.
Foer: I think she's wonderful. I think there is an awful lot of pressure on her now, and young people generally, in a way that feels to me somewhat unfair. It's grossly unfair, the pressure we're putting on kids. I worry that the affection for Greta Thunberg can accidentally relieve our own responsibility to do something. We see that she's doing so much, and we see that she's speaking on our behalf. What we need is for her inspiration, which is so powerful, to inspire not to follow her, but to inspire us to act.
De Luce: Do you feel like this is the most anyone has cared about this issue? Is this a turning point?
Foer: I do. Without a doubt, it's the most that we've cared. It can be demonstrated in polls. It shows in this critical moment where caring is starting to shape into behavior. That's the step that's necessary. It's not enough to know the right things and to feel the right things. We have to do the right things, and I think that now, we're beginning to, and I imagine once that process is really set in motion, it will trip into something quite parabolic.
De Luce: What might you say to people who don't believe in climate change?
Foer: To be honest, I don't even think they're worth talking to right now. Anybody who doesn't believe the science is willfully not believing the science. If you want to wake up somebody who's asleep, you can pinch their arm, or poke their nose, but you can't wake up somebody who's pretending to be asleep. People who deny the science are pretending. They're not our problem. There's very few of them left. The real problem is people who accept the science but don't do anything about it.
De Luce: Do you have hope for the future?
Foer: I have cautious hope. We're facing something that's unbelievably large and scary, and will require unprecedented mobilization, but what's the alternative?
It's just the science. It's not an opinion, it's not advice. If people care about the planet and accept science, we have to. We have no choice.
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